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In a beautiful and serene park setting, disheveled Olivia de Havilland
(as Virginia Stuart) sits on a bench talking to herself. As it turns
out, she is a 24-year-old mental patient. Believing she is in a prison,
Ms. De Havilland does not recognize loving husband Mark Stevens (as
Robert Cunningham). In a flashback, he begins to tell de Havilland's
story. Later, she is able to elaborate events for kindly doctor Leo
Genn (as Mark Kik). Unhappy events from de Havilland's childhood could
provide a clue to the origin of her mental problems and put her on the
road to recovery...
This film was considered shocking for revealing the despicable conditions mental patients suffered in institutions. There is a prison-like environment and the soundtrack music horrifically pounds while de Havilland receives electro-shock treatment. Other than that, the conditions are relatively good. De Havilland receives excellent care from "Doctor Kik" and the facility is spacious and well-maintained. The staff is commendable but for exacting nurse Helen Craig (as Miss Davis), who delivers exceptionally in one of the film's many small supporting roles. There are dozens of others...
If extras could still participate in "Academy Award" voting, Anatole Litvak's "The Snake Pit" might have won more than one of its six nominations. Still, de Havilland's remarkable work won her several of filmdom's most respected 1948 "Best Actress" honors, including the "New York Film Critics" and "National Board of Review" awards. Generally remembered for lighter, more secondary roles in the 1930s, de Havilland would follow-up with a most stunning performance in "The Heiress" (1949). Her acting in the 1940s made de Havilland one of the decade's finest dramatic actresses.
******** The Snake Pit (11/4/48) Anatole Litvak ~ Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Helen Craig
The Snake Pit
The hardest part of diagnosing craziness in women is not accidentally making a blanket assessment of the entire sex.
And while this drama doesn't put all women in padded cells, it does confine at least one.
Rousing after a hysterical blackout, housewife Virginia (Olivia de Havilland) finds she's been admitted to a mental hospital where she's been diagnosed schizophrenic.
Disorientated and frantic, Virginia is unable to remember the events leading up to her residency at the hospital.
But overtime, psychotherapy and electric shock therapy help her recount the troublesome marital matters between her and her husband.
And with each session she draws closer to escaping the maddening cries of her fellow patients.
A pioneering perspective of the medieval practices of a 1940s mental institute, The Snake Pit is an artistic and an educational achievement.
However, with free pills, free psychoanalysis and free pajamas, who's ever going to admit they're sane?
Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) finds herself in a state
insane asylum... and cannot remember how she got there. In flashback,
her husband Robert relates their courtship, marriage, and her
Stephen King says this film terrified him as a child, because he felt that he could go crazy at any moment (and worst of all, not even be aware that he was crazy). And, indeed, there is something terrifying about this film. While many films have taken place in mental hospital, I think very few really address how normal most mentally ill people are most of the time, or the fine balance between sane and insane.
I do not know much about Olivia de Havilland, but she really pulled all the stops here. If she is capable of this level of intensity, she probably should have been a bigger star than she was.
This was a disturbing movie to watch even though it seemed to have a happy ending. At the time I first saw the movie in the 1960's, I had a friend who was in a mental ward briefly and the scenes were frightening realistic with the characters portrayal and the prevalence of shock therapy While it is true the ending was over the top with the "Going Home' sequence, the message of hope was uplifting and was counter to the stark hard to watch struggles of daily life in the hospital. How anyone got better at all was a miracle. At least they tried to make sure the discharged patient had someplace to go unlike 'Swing Blade' where Billy Bob Thornton was just sent on his way even though he was potentially violent.
When I was 8 I remember visiting my mother at Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island. Years later I saw this film and it was if I was back at Pilgrim State. Realistic, frightening, heart-wrenching, poignant and yet, in the end, hopeful. Some others have mentioned the non-Oscar for de Havilland. Yet she did get two for other films in the same era( Streep has only one Oscar for best actress with more than a dozen nominations). Others have mentioned other films about mental illness, yet the one that comes closest to this in terms of realism and total effect, I believe, is Lost Weekend, which won a Best Picture Oscar just a few years earlier.
"The Snake Pit" is a 2-hour infomercial for the then-budding (in 1948)
field of psychoanalysis. Its view of mental illness was probably very
enlightened for the time but seems positively quaint and, really,
rather sexist by modern standards. Still, it features an excellent
performance by Olivia de Havilland as a woman committed to an state
mental hospital. Olivia resorts to histrionics in only a couple of
scenes, and elsewhere finds many different ways to play a character who
is not quite "right" - she'll be tired and dull-witted one moment,
agitated and demanding the next, compassionate and troubled the next.
In short, her character is schizophrenic, but she manages to make her
sympathetic and complex without being pathetic. The pathos is left to
the other patients in the asylum -- every character actress in
Hollywood is granted a bit of screen time, and they all make the most
of it. The best is the old lady who keeps a running commentary about
how sick all her fellow inmates are -- she's funny enough to be a bit
player in a Marx Brothers movie, but here she's quite disturbing.
Still, to enjoy Livvy and the loony ladies, you have to endure a pretty contrived plot. Virginia, as played by Olivia, starts having psychotic episodes shortly after she marries the most saintly man on Earth, Robert (played by the justly forgotten Mark Stevens). After Virginia committed, the most patient psychoanalyst in history, Dr. Mark Kik, begins piecing together the reasons for her breakdown on the assumption that understanding the source of her disorder will be the best way to cure it. Hence "The Snake Pit" is structured like a detective story, and the mystery, when revealed, isn't all that satisfying (although it does leave open the possibility that Virginia was bored senseless by her stiff of a husband). Still, the filmmakers are to be commended for their indictment of the mental-health system as brutal and inhumane. (And in truth, they make a far better case against it than "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" three decades later.) One wishes they hadn't been quite so blinkered by then-current prejudices, which maintained that poor mothering is the source of all evil and a woman needs a healthy relationship with a man to be rational, but on balance, "The Snake Pit" is a pretty brave film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Before Jack Nicholson and 'The Cuckoo's Nest', there was Olivia De
Haviland in 'The Snake Pit'.
Released in 1948, this was a daring effort to disclose the bleak and terrifying world of mental illness and the inadequate institutions within which sufferers were interned. As in 'Cuckoo's Nest', there was even a malignant, tyrannical nurse preying upon the inmates' indispositions; here competently played by Helen Craig.
Olivia De Haviland is a tour-de-force as someone trapped in a system that is almost exclusively self-accountable and is therefore a law unto itself. Nobody really wants to know. Mental illness is either too embarrassing or too terrifying to address. Shut 'em all away. Doctor knows best. What's more alarming is the fact that this movie is based upon a true story. Criminal Institutions still receive better funding.
Halfway through the 20th century things had barely advanced beyond the Victorian times. Sadly; things haven't improved much further since. A recent visit (making a delivery) to a facility in St Pancras Hospital in London was scarcely less terrifying than the events portrayed in this work.
This is a must-see movie, and not just for entertainment. People need to be aware of what may await their relatives or themselves if the medical profession decides that your condition is chronic.
A memorable 1948 film with Olivia DeHavilland giving a N.Y. City film
critic winning performance. It would take someone of Jane Wyman's
caliber in "Johnny Belinda" to have beaten her out. That was some year
for best actress nominees. We also had Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne
and Ingrid Bergman for "Sorry Wrong Number," and "I Remember Mama," as
well as "Joan of Arc."
The film depicts a shocking indictment of our mental hospitals for that period of time.
DeHavilland was outstanding here. The various nuances that she showed as a mentally unbalanced person were phenomenal. She got fantastic support from Mark Stevens, her husband in the film as well as Leo Genn, phenomenal as the doctor who understood her.
Ruth Donnelly, Beulah Bondi and particularly Betsy Blair were terrific as mentally ill women. Amazing that Celeste Holm, who had won the supporting Oscar the year before for "Gentleman's Agreement," had such a small role in this film.
The picture brings out how terrible mental illness can be and the desperation of those trying to get better.
As we saw with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," there are plenty of nurses who should not have been in psychiatric wards.
It takes compassion and understanding to unlock the mystery to mental illnesses. The picture aptly did that.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This film presents a very realistic look at mental hospitals in the era
it was made. Mainly, this is a great performance by Olivia De'Havilland
that really carries a well conceived script & makes it a very good film
Natalie Schaefer (Mrs. Thurston Howell III for you fans of Gilligans Island) has a very good small support role in this too. A lot of the rest of the cast is not real well known, but everyone does well in this script about a woman with major problems due too a troubled childhood.
Her husband can't help her but finally a Doctor does & at the end of the movie after several setbacks, she finally gets out of the hospital. This movie proves how good an actress Olivia is as the film is more than 95 percent centered on her central character & she carries this film brilliantly. If you get a chance to catch this one, you will not lose anything as this film is very well done.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A valuable corrective for the time. Most previous movies reflected the
prevailing conception of the mentally ill as mad doctors, Jack the
Rippers, or pseudo-comic Napoleons. This is a tour of the experiences
of a real writer, "Virginia Cunningham" (de Havilland), as she has a
nervous breakdown, receives treatment at a state psychiatric hospital,
and is finally released to join her loving husband at home (Stevens),
with the aid of her shrink (Genn).
The movie is thoroughly structured, as so much of life is not, and made fit for normal consumption by being built around styles of life and ways of thinking that are familiar to most of us.
The hospital is framed according to the demands of the military model. It's really a barracks full of recruits. The male doctors are the officers. The female nurses and attendants are the non-commissioned officers who provide the muscle. There's the wise guy among the patients (Ruth Donnelly) who corresponds to the smart-mouthed recruit from Brooklyn. There is even a stockade in which the cells are lined with brick and into which unruly recruits are wrapped in straight jackets and thrown.
The etiology of the illnesses accord with the Freudian model. It all may have started in infancy, with a neglectful mother, developed through the Electra complex, festered during sibling rivalry, and made worse by unconscious guilt and repressed memories. All the touchstones of the psychoanalytic scenario are on display. (The writers blew a chance for picturesque symbolic dreams, though.) What you must do to get well is bring these childhood experiences and their interpretations to conscious awareness. Once you realize you married your husband because of the ways in which he resembled your beloved father, things will improve.
That's a pretty viewer-friendly notion of madness. Actually, it doesn't work. Even Freud didn't think psychoanalysis would work with psychotics and he was right. This isn't the place to get into it but there's a high constitutional component in psychosis. You don't get better by achieving insights. And of course the other treatment methods we see -- hydrotherapy -- are discredited, and straight jackets are passé. Oh, how these theories and treatments come and go! Egon Muñoz won a Nobel Prize for his lobotomies. As of now, the best treatments we have for disabling mental illness are drugs.
For a more person perspective on schizophrenia, see Susanna Kaysen's "Girl Interrupted" -- the well-written book, not the movie. For the mood disorders that used to be called manic-depressive, try William Styron's "Darkness Visible" or, for a slightly more technical inside view, Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind."
Anyway -- the obsolescent frames aside -- this was a timely movie in 1948, one of a series of problem-oriented movies that came from many of the studios. Examples included "Gentleman's Agreement" (anti-Semitism), "The Sniper" (mental illness), "Pinky" (racism), "Bad Girls" (penology) and a slew of others.
"The Snake Pit" was prominent among them, but of course it's still highly stylized because the typical experience of a psychotic in a state mental hospital in 1948 wasn't very dramatic. There's an amusing scene in which patients pass around a bowl of stew, each one saying, "Save some for Virginia." By the time the bowl reaches Virginia it's practically empty. It's presented as a deliberate joke being played on Virginia, but that kind of organization was absent among patients. The chief impression a visitor would have gotten was silence. In the 1960s, inmates seemed to be taking over control of all sorts of places -- college campuses, prisons, airplanes, Alcatraz Island. But nobody took over a psychiatric hospital.
Olivia de Havilland does fine as Virginia. Her big wide eyes stand out in the absence of make up. She's not the cloying Melanie of "Gone With the Wind" either. She gets upset, frightened, angry, and mean. Leo Genn as the pipe-smoking, ever-understanding Doctor Kik, who saves her, has a role so stereotyped that all he has to do is walk through it but, given the strictures of the part, he's a believable enough humanitarian.
Anatole Litvak did a professional job of direction. The most dramatic shot takes the camera slowly over an assembly of patients who are listening to a soprano singing the plaintive "Going Home," adapted from Dvorak's "New World Symphony." The scene panders, but it panders effectively and is quite moving.
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